Tag Archives: climax

Story Maps

Map

Mapping the Creative Process:

In looking at the writing process it is often helpful to have a snapshot or map of the lay of the land in mind. Below is one such map. (For a detailed definition of the listed terms, kindly consult the archived posts on this site.)

The Map

Most stories come from the generation of multiple ideas, ideas which are filtered and distilled down to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”

But an idea without a story is impotent. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, which help the writer determine the genre.

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title.

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one determines and explores the main character and supporting cast— the backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, need vs want, goal and transformational arcs, where appropriate. Simultaneously, one builds a plot inflected by structureinciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid point, climax and resolution.

Now the writer is ready to identify and create possible subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions.

That done, the writer is ready to create the treatment, followed by the step-outline, before turning to that all-important, but malleable first draft. It is here that dialogue comes to the fore, dialogue that ought to be authentic, purposeful and born out of the character’s already-defined traits.

By the end of the obligatory or climactic scene, the writer has exposed the main theme of the story—the winner of the battle carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, human instinct and heart trump artificial intelligence.

Of course, the first draft is the first of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the cold light of day.

Summary

Keeping a map of the overall creative process in mind is often helpful in supporting the writing of the first draft of a story. This post names the components of one such map.

How to Write Powerful Endings

Ticket showing "End of the Line"

The End

Powerful endings don’t just happen. They are the result of careful and inspired preparation implemented from the first page of your manuscript. The best endings are as surprising as they are inevitable — in hindsight. This post offers five techniques, chosen from an assortment of others, for making your story endings more memorable.

1. Enhance the Reputations of the Protagonist and Antagonist

Stories are about the antagonist and protagonist involved in a life and death struggle to achieve/prevent the story goal. Enhancing the reputation of these two essential characters ups the ante and leads to a more engaging and tense ending. In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), the protagonist, is described by the opening titles as “a known thief, murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition” and later is described by The Kid as “You the same one that shot Charley Pepper up in Lake County? (…). You’re the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train in Missouri.” Likewise, the antagonist, Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman), is described by a deputy as being fearless, having grown up in tough circumstances and survived. He is also seen beating English Bob, a hardened murderer, within an inch of his life. His toughness and cruelty enhances his reputation as a feared antagonist.

2. Cast Doubt about the Final Confrontation

The more we doubt the ability of the protagonist to achieve his goal by defeating the antagonist, the more we root for his success, and the more we fear for his failure. When we first meet William Munny we find him slipping and falling amongst the pigs in the pen. The Kid says of him: “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin.” And later, it takes Munny four shots to get the first cowboy. Compared with Little Bill’s ruthless skills, this makes us fear for his survival against the Sheriff.

3. Shift Direction

Introducing twists which take us away from our expectations – from what is needed for the protagonist to achieve the goal – causes us to wonder and worry about the outcome. Little Bill beats up William Munny at the saloon, and Munny spends three days hovering near death. The Kid remarks that Munny is useless. Munny hardly appears as a man who will fulfill his contract and succeed in standing up to Little Bill.

4. Further Increase Suspense Around the Final Confrontation

When Munny is told that Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) has been beaten to death by Little Bill, he knows that he has to go back and revenge his death. He knows that this might well result in his own death since he tells The Kid “Here, take this money and give my half and Ned’s half to my kids.” Munny’s own belief in the outcome of the confrontation increases the suspense and makes us fear about his survival even more.

5. The Final Confrontation Occurs in The Antagonists’s Stronghold

Facing the antagonist in his own lair, strengthens the antagonists’ and weakens the protagonists’ position. Munny faces Little Bill in the Saloon, surrounded by Little Bill’s deputies, henchmen, and supporters. This weighs heavily against Munny and makes it unlikely that he will survive the confrontation.

Summary

Planing a powerful ending involves seeding a number of elements at various points along the story that increase the tension and make the likelihood of the protagonist prevailing over the antagonist unlikely. Enhancing the reputation, casting doubt about the final confrontation, constantly shifting direction in expectation, further increasing suspense around the final confrontation, and having the climactic scene occur in the antagonists’s lair, are some of the most important techniques in achieving this.

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Understanding the Story Climax

Explosion

Story Climax

Although I’ve touched on a story’s climax before, it is such an important narrative segment, that it deserves revisiting.

What is the Story Climax?

Syd Field states that “The Climax is the principle part of the story for which (…) all the machinery of planning and constructing has been set in motion (…). The climax is a scene, (also known as the must-have scene), in which the Hero faces the greatest obstacle of all – the final confrontation with the antagonist, or, antagonistic forces, in which one side wins and the other looses. The climax brings together the following elements: it resolves the main plot, it settles the theme of the story, and it addresses the transformation (or, lack there of) of the Hero.

The climax is the highest emotional peak of your story. It also resolves the final goal of the tale. In Act I, the goal that is set is found to be insufficient or fake, while in Act II a more appropriate goal is determined. At the end of Act III, however, the true, or, concealed, goal is uncovered. The climax ends in the Hero’s achieving, or, failing to achieve this true goal. This also determines the theme of the tale: For example – self sacrifice leads to victory, or, self sacrifice leads to defeat.

Knowing the climax of your story as you write gives you a target to aim at since you can now ask and answer the question, at each stage of the process, of how each scene helps you to set up your story climax. If it doesn’t, cull the scene and write one that does.

In his book, Screenwriting, Story mentor, Raymond G Frensham, gives an example from Act III of Witness which shows how these elements are integrated at the climax. By the end of Act III, John Book (Harrison Ford) is less concerned about his own survival than he is about the survival of the Amish community and their values (goal change). John, in choosing to put down his gun and face the antagonist unarmed, unleashes the moral power of the Amish community, which defeats the antagonistic forces (Climax & Theme: good triumphs over evil.)

Summary

The climax is, perhaps, the most important scene in the story since it resolves several elements, such as, plot, change in the protagonist, and theme. Structuring the climax correctly, therefore, is one of the important skills a writer must master.

Story Crisis & Climax

Scream

Crisis & Climax

What is the story crisis and how is it related to the climax? This post traces three variations of this most important relationship.

Crisis & Climax Back-To-Back

The climax of a story is generally preceded by a dilemma for the Protagonist in which a final life-changing decision has to be made. In Thelma & Louise, the crisis occurs moments before the end of the film, right after a climactic chase by the cops, which brings them to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The choice is simple: prison or death. They choose death.

Crisis & Climax Stretched-Out

In other stories, however, the climax stretches out across several scenes with its own beats, its own build-up. In his book, Story, Robert McKee provides an example from Casablanca where Rick pursues Ilsa until she gives in to him in the Act II climax. In the next scene, however, Lazlo presses Rick to rejoin the anti-fascist cause, precipitating a dilemma, which ends when Rick puts Ilsa and her husband on a plane to America, sacrificing his desire to be with her. The final part of the third act plays out the climactic action resulting from Rick’s (crisis) decision to help the couple escape at his own expense.

Crisis & Climax Separated Out

Although crisis-decisions and climactic action usually occur within the same location and within a short time interval towards the end of the story, it is not unusual for the two dramatic processes to occupy different spatial and temporal settings, although, in this instance, they should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

In Kramer vs Kramer Act III opens with Kramer’s lawyer saying that he has lost the case, but could win on appeal, providing Kramer is willing to put his son on the stand and ask him to choose between himself and his mother. The boy would choose his father, but at great psychological cost. Kramer simply states “I can’t do that.” This is the crisis decision in which Kramer decides against his own needs. We then cut from Kramer and the lawyer to the climax—an anguished walk in Central Park as Kramer explains to his son about their future life apart.

McKee points out that when crisis and climax occur in a different time and place, “we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in filmic time and space,” or risk draining them of pent-up energy, reducing the effect to an anti-climax.

In Summary

The crisis leads to the Protagonist taking a decision which leads to the story climax. The timing of the crisis-decision and climax varies depending on the story, but should be delivered in close proximity to each other in terms of filmic time.

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How to Pace your Stories

Varying the Pace

Varying the Pace

By pacing I mean the overall flow and rhythm of your story: its climaxes, reliefs, pauses, highs and lows – the heartbeat of your tale. Every story needs to vary its pace if it is to give its audiences and readers a chance to catch their breath and reflect. Without this variation, your story would grow monotonous and dull.

Graphing the Pace

In other words the pace should not look like this:

Graph1

Graph1


It should look like this:
Graph2

Graph2


Although the ante is forever ramping up, you should allow for diminuendos in the buildup to your final climax.

Contrast

What this means in practical terms, is that your material should contain contrasts:

Short vs. long scenes
Information vs. mood scenes
Interior vs. exterior
Dialogue vs. non-dialogue
Dramatic vs. comic relief
Day vs. night
Slow vs. fast tempo scenes
Present vs. flashbacks

Of course, this can’t be a mechanical process – contrast for contrast’s sake in a “let’s take turns” approach. These contrasts have to fit the demands of the overall structure of your story – the turning points, pinches, midpoint, and so on. As nebulous as it is to say this, the timing and placement of these contrasts are best governed by feeling, or instinct. If you’ve written a highly tense scene that has brought audiences to breaking point, you might consider following it up with a calmer or lighter scene, sooner rather than later – comic relief following a dramatic scene, grants us, well, comic relief.

Another great tip for pacing within scenes, or scene sequences, is the old adage, enter late, and leave early. Although this is not possible for all scenes, the late-in early-out approach is particularly useful in the third act of your story when the pace culminates in the climactic scene.

In Summary

Pacing refers to the overall flow and rhythm of your narrative incidents. Handled well, it keeps the audience and readers hooked into the story through a series of contrasts in scene length, tempo, dialogue, interior/exterior, drama/action/comic relief, day/night, and time frame.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Strengthen Your Climactic Scene

As has been mentioned in a previous post, scenes are composite clusters of dramatic action, which usually (but not always) occur within a unified spatial and temporal field — within a specific time and place. Each scene has a specific function to perform according to its location within the story. Scenes correspond to the structural units that have been the main subject of these posts — turning points, mid-point, the pinches, etc., but they can also be simpler, less powerful clusters — adjoining units acting as transitional bridges to more important and dramatic scenes. By identifying, naming, and studying the structure of each scene as a type in the films and literature we admire, we are able to apply the insights we gain in our own work.

The Climactic Scene

One example of an important scene type, arguably the most important of all, is the climax, also known as the must-have, or, do-or-die scene. This scene occurs when the protagonist is forced, or, chooses, to face the antagonist in a winner-take-all confrontation towards the end of the story. At the beginning of this scene the stakes are at their highest, the outcome uncertain, as is the theme and moral premise of the story. By the end of the scene good (in the form of the protagonist) either triumphs over or succumbs to evil (in the form of the antagonist), thus settling the theme and moral premise. The question now arises as to how we may ramp up the climactic scene in order to squeeze the most juice from it, knowing that a failed climax inevitably means a failed story. Here are a couple of suggestions.

Ask yourself these two questions:

1. What is the primary strength of your antagonist?
2. What is the primary weakness/fear of your protagonist?

Now create a scene that plays to your protagonist’s chief weakness\fear, while promoting your antagonist’s primary strength. Additionally, ask yourself what setting best enhances the antagonist’s chances of winning, while simultaneously increasing the chances of your protagonist’s failing?

The Matrix

In the film, The Matrix, for example, an important late confrontation between Neo and agent Smith takes place inside virtual space — Smith’s own world — a place where he holds the most advantage. At the end of a sustained fight sequence Smith shoots Neo, who, for all intents and purposes, dies. It is only when Trinity administers the kiss of life/love to him on the Nebuchadnezzar — in the real world — that Neo recovers and is able to defeat Smith inside the matrix.

In Summary

The climactic scene represents the dramatic highlight of your story. It pits the protagonist against the antagonist in a do-or-die confrontation whose outcome determines not only the moral premise and theme of your story but its ultimate success. Improve your writing by exploiting an appropriate setting that strengthens the antagonist while simultaneously weakening the protagonist.

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. I post every Monday.

How to Write Endings That Work

During my classes on writing, people often remark that they find the ending of a story the most difficult to write. The ending, after all, is where everything must come together to excite, explain, and validate that which has gone before. Shaky endings leave us feeling unsatisfied and render the entire story suspect. Writing a great ending isn’t easy. But it is, in my opinion, easier to write than the beginning.

Consider the start of the story – what we sometimes refer to as the “ordinary world”. Here, the right genre must be chosen, the dramatic question created, and the theme and moral of the story conceived. The characters must be crafted from scratch, and then established through pertinent traits; the world they inhabit, too, must be thought out and sketched in – in just the right detail to foreshadow the reveals that are to follow.

Of course, your endings, too, have much to achieve — generate heat and excitement, preferably in a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, answer your story’s overall dramatic question, explain some of the riddles that have occurred along your story spine, show how the protagonist and other important characters have been changed by the journey, and provide the final twist to the theme, or moral premise. Yet, unlike the beginning of a story, the ending is driven by a sense of inevitability that may serve to guide the writer’s hand. Once the writer identifies the central premise, he or she should able to craft the conclusion as a surprising but inevitable result of that premise.

Unlike beginnings, which may commence at any point, endings are constrained by their point of origin and should therefore be easier, although not necessarily easy, to write. This analysis applies specifically to what we call closed endings, rather than open endings. Open endings are inconclusive or ambiguous by intent, as a way of suggesting the uncertainty and multiplicity of life, and are handled differently. (My novel, Scarab, for example, manages to present an open and closed ending simultaneously). In this post, then, we look at four of the most important characteristics of the closed ending – the second turning point, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution, or the return to the ordinary (but changed) world.

The Final Act

The third, or final section of your story, is intimately connected to the second turning point – the last big event that turns the plot around, leading to the obligatory scene. The second turning point causes a crisis which forces the protagonist to choose between what he wants (the outer goal), and what he truly needs (the two are often at odds). This decision leads to the climax – the do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. The protagonist then returns to the ordinary world, changed by the ordeal, to find that his world has changed too. Let’s see how this works in the example below:

Unforgiven

The second turning point in Unforgiven occurs when William Munny (Clint Eastwood) learns that his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) has been murdered by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) and his men. This leaves him no choice but to seek revenge over and above the job he was hired to do, which was to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. For a man who has fought hard to leave behind his days as a ruthless killer, this represents a crisis point. What he wants is revenge. What he needs is to leave his old violent life behind. His decision to avenge Ned’s death leads directly to his confrontation with Little Bill, which he wins hands down. His thirst for vengeance sated, Munny rides back to his ordinary world to raise his children in the manner his wife would have wanted. Although there are many embellishments and complications to each structural unit, the ending, as a whole, follows the classical pattern mentioned above – second turning point, crisis, climax, and resolution. Crafting your ending in this way ensures that your overall structure is sound, allowing you more freedom to add depth, colour, and resonance to your story.

Please feel free to add a comment, ask a question, or suggests further topics for forthcoming posts.